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White Helmets continue life-saving operations in Syria’s forgotten crisis

News Humanitarian assistance
Syria -

Since a devastating earthquake hit parts of Turkey and Syria in February 2023, Cordaid has been collaborating with various partners in the disaster area to provide emergency relief. Ahmed Ekzayez, the programme director of the White Helmets updates us on the latest developments in north-west Syria and shares his ideas about moving forward in a crisis largely neglected by the international community.

The White Helmets are rehabilitating roads in the earthquake-affected areas in Syria. Image: White Helmets

The earthquake was one of the strongest ever recorded in the region. An estimated 14 million people have been affected and over 60,000 lives were lost. The first responders had to set up their operations in a politically complex and insecure region, where much of the essential infrastructure had been destroyed.

The volunteers of the Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets, were able to respond effectively and timely thanks to their vast experience in crisis areas. Cordaid funds several of their activities with the proceeds of a national fundraising campaign in the Netherlands.

With more than 3,000 volunteers, coordinated through headquarters in Syria, the White Helmets are one of the region’s largest and most significant humanitarian actors. Apart from their search and rescue efforts, they have organised 126 centres where they assist people with various needs. In north-west Syria they serve 965 communities out of 1,005, almost covering 98%.

Programme director Ahmed Ekzayez coordinates the activities and is responsible for ensuring the quality of the operations. ‘Today, the crisis is twofold: humanitarian and social,’ Ahmed says.

What can you tell us about the living conditions of the affected population, almost 18 months after the earthquake?

‘It’s still dire. And in some ways, it’s getting worse. When the humanitarian situation deteriorates, this impacts the whole society. In some areas, people take to the streets to demonstrate because their basic needs are not addressed. A sad example is the shrinking availability of public education for children in Aleppo and Idlib. Another example is the growing unemployment rate. And there are still many problems when it comes to safety.’

‘I strongly believe that by investing in local capacity and building local systems, we will spend less money and have more impact.’

At the same time, international funding for humanitarian projects in Syria is decreasing.

‘That’s right. Some NGOs are seizing their activities because they don’t receive enough funding. The donors tell us it’s because of all the major crises in the world. Donor governments and institutions can’t address all these global challenges at once and they find it difficult to balance the causes they support. Sadly, Syria is no longer a priority. It’s tragic because the needs are still huge. There are 3.4 million displaced persons in north-west Syria and 4.2 million people need humanitarian assistance.’

What can the humanitarian sector in Syria do to attract the attention of the donor community again?

‘As organisations, we should become better at providing information to the media. There is a lot of misinformation. Or there is too little information. It was great to see how the international community responded, but the donors didn’t realise that the earthquake’s impact on the region doesn’t only last six months to a year. It will take at least four years to recover from this disaster. Instead of building on our successes for long-term programmes, we only struggle to reach short-term goals. Another reason donors might get discouraged is that the conflict has been going on for a long time.’

White Helmets Programme Director Ahmed Ekzayez.

It has indeed. How do you build something sustainable in an ongoing conflict?

‘Sustainability can be enhanced through supporting local actors. Much money has been spent in response to the Syrian crisis. Why aren’t we seeing any improvement or sustainable outcomes? The number of people in need should be going down instead of increasing. I strongly believe that by investing in local capacity and building local systems, we will spend less money and have more impact. Moreover, we must make our responses more comprehensive, coordinated and focused on the long term.’

‘They see us as the ones who make their world safer. They trust us.’

Despite the many challenges and the work on improving the response, what can you tell us about your organisation’s achievements?

‘Our primary goal is to save lives. We search for survivors and provide first aid. With limited and basic resources, we saved almost 3,000 lives during the earthquake response. Emergency guidelines talk about the need to respond within 72 hours. Despite the lack of equipment and with little international support, we reached 60 affected sites within the first 10 hours after the earthquake. The difference of a few hours can save many lives. This is another example of the strength of local organisations. We are fast because we don’t have to handle so much bureaucracy. Our volunteers could respond immediately because they were already there.’

The White Helmets is an organisation of so-called ‘first responders’. Now that the first response is over, what will your focus be for the coming period?

‘We are working in an ongoing conflict. Therefore, the urgent need for the efforts of first responders remains. However, we do have a long-term plan in place to maintain and enhance the capacity of our team and the affected communities to respond to various disasters and crises. For example, we trained 2,000 volunteers in search and rescue activities and skills. This is a great success. Next to our emergency relief efforts, we are responsible for renovating parts of the infrastructure. We are rehabilitating roads so the ambulances can reach people in time. With Cordaid’s support, we also repaired facilities for water and sanitation and rehabilitated 18 healthcare centres. This is an example of how we link humanitarian activities to long-term development. We can’t keep distributing water with trucks forever. We need a good water supply system.’

Conflict, displacement, natural disasters, food insecurity: the number of challenges in the region almost seems unsurmountable. What keeps you going?

‘Last week, I finished a meeting at nine in the evening. When I came home, my son asked me, ‘why do you spend so much time at work?’ I told him I work for an organisation that saves lives in Syria. This is simply what it means to be part of the White Helmets. When you ask people which organisation they would contact in an emergency, they say they would call us. They see us as the ones who make their world safer. They trust us. This gives me a great energy boost to continue with this work.’